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The rise of the blockbuster

3 December 2009 by superlative

I really enjoyed an article from the Economist this week, on the place of blockbusters in modern culture. I’ve found myself saying quite often over the last few years that everything is a smash these days, and everything that gets released seems to be biggest selling blah ever. The article, called A world of hits, dealt with the same sort of thing, but in the context of ‘we have more choice than ever before, so why does that mean even fewer things than ever before become big hits?’

I’ll use the term blockbuster quite broadly here even though that only normally applies to films, but really I’m talking about all kinds of media – be it the biggest selling film, or album, or book, or even newspaper.
Basically, the article argues that as the internet grew, people thought our new-found access to a broader range of products would encourage a vastly more diverse market, full of lots and lots of different things all selling moderately well. In fact, what we’ve ended up with is a market where a very small number of blockbusters account for the vast majority of sales, niche markets at the other end of the scale account for the rest, and all the stuff in the middle loses out. You either have to be a hit, or a niche, or you’ll sell hardly anything.
One of the reasons for this is that people like to have something to talk about with their friends. If you all consume the same things, that’s much easier, and that in itself encourages us to buy the same things as other people, creating a cycle of popularity. Or if you’re part of a clique that enjoys a little-known band or author, you can discuss that band or author with other passionate fans and derive just as much pleasure, even though overall it’s not a big seller. But if a product is neither a big seller, nor attracts a devoted niche market, it flops because no one cares.
At the same time though, we end up with blockbusters not necessarily being the best things that are available, but still being the most popular with the masses and receiving the best reviews from the public. That’s because a disproportionate share of the audience is made up of people who consume few products of that type – e.g. people who go to see the latest big releases but don’t watch smaller films – and they’re therefore not that discerning. Those products get an easier ride with the public because the audience isn’t informed enough to criticise. If you ask an American who has only read one book this year, the article says, it is highly likely it was The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, and he probably loved it.
Niche products, on the other hand, tend to be consumed by people who read more, or listen to more music, or see more films, and those people are therefore more critical in general and more difficult to please.
In short, blockbusters don’t have to be very good, as they get buoyed up by a wave of ill-informed goodwill, while niche products have to work very hard to get a similar level of approval from their audience.
We end up with the market we’ve got today, where it is only worthwhile for a media company to push the few things that they anticipate will be big hits. Small fry get left out, because while they may surprise everyone and do really well, they won’t reliably do so, making them an uncertain investment. It’s a bit sad really, as consumers will miss out on some of the very best things in favour of the ‘popular’, and it will continue to be that way because that’s what we buy.
It’s no wonder independent films or new authors struggle so much; you can’t just be quite good any more. You have to be exceptional, or be accessible, not necessarily that good, but get lucky and be ‘the next big thing’, and you can enjoy massive self-fulfilling popularity for no good reason (yes I’m looking at you, JK Rowling, you talentless bint).
So anyway, I thought it was an excellent article, and it’s one of the reasons I highly recommend reading the Economist to anyone who’ll listen.

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